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Worsening California Housing Crisis Stymies State Lawmakers

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- Crisis. Emergency. California lawmakers are describing the state's housing crunch in dire terms.

But few seem to agree on what to do about it.

The political wrangling over the last few weeks around bills to cap rent increases, set new rules for evictions and cut red tape to build more housing reveals big splits in the Legislature when it comes to one of the most pressing issues of the session.

All of it comes even after Democrats expanded their majorities in the Senate and Assembly during the 2018 election while also watching a new governor from their own party ride to office pledging that California would build millions of new housing units.

Randy Shaw, a longtime housing activist in San Francisco, is among those who believe Gov. Gavin Newsom must get more involved to follow through on his pledges of building new housing and curbing homelessness.

Shaw was particularly upset the Assembly didn't even vote on a bill to make it harder for landlords to evict tenants.

"A supermajority of Democrats in the bluest of states completely abandoned the state's tenants," said Shaw, author of "Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America."

Newsom came to office in January urging lawmakers to pass legislation protecting tenants but has stayed out of public debates on it. His budget includes more funding to prevent homelessness as well as develop affordable housing.

Assembly Bill 1481 would require landlords have a valid reason for evicting tenants, known as just cause. Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, sponsored it and said it's up to the Legislature to come together and get it to Newsom.

"We have a governor who said, 'put tenant protection bills on my desk and I'll sign them,'" said Bonta, pointing to Newsom's call to action in his State of the State address.

A spokesman for Newsom said the governor was pleased work continues on advancing legislation like the rent cap bill. Newsom is focused on getting more funding and incentives for housing in the budget, which must be passed in the Legislature by June 15.

Another closely watched housing bill hit a wall when Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Cañada Flintridge and chairman of a powerful committee, said it would not get a vote this year. The measure, Senate Bill 50, would have overridden local zoning rules to allow for the construction of more housing in some areas, such as around transit.

Local governments raised concerns that the bill could change the character of neighborhoods while some housing activists argued it would accelerate gentrification.

One major housing bill that eked out of the Assembly last week came with some big concessions to allay the opposition of a prominent critic: the California Association of Realtors. The bill now goes to the state Senate for consideration.

While Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, had proposed capping rent increases at 5 percent a year plus inflation, he agreed to raise the cap to 7%. And he agreed to let the cap expire in 2023 while also exempting landlords owning fewer than 10 single-family homes. The bill would also exempt housing built within the last several years.

A legislative analysis suggested that a cap of 5% would have remained well above the median rent increase.

The vote on Assembly Bill 1482 still came down to a dramatic last push, with several Democrats opposing the bill over concerns it would not exempt mom-and-pop landlords or go far enough to protect renters.

The battles over the three bills point to the lack of any political consensus on the issue and tangle of overlapping interest groups involved.

Proponents of building more housing blame in large part a "not in my backyard" attitude and the political clout of suburbia for stymieing their favored legislation.

But some of the same groups pushing to cut red tape around the construction of new homes are also fighting caps on rent increases or limits on eviction.

Apartment owners and Realtors have argued those measures will not address a lack of housing.

"There's nothing in this bill that encourages one new rental unit in the state of California," Tom Bannon, CEO of the California Apartment Association, said of Chiu's bill to cap rent increases.

Opponents also note that Californians voted down a ballot measure last year that would have allowed cities to expand rent control.

Advocates of building denser housing have had some victories. Lawmakers are advancing legislation that would make it easier to build "accessory dwelling units," such as bungalows or casitas in the backyards of existing homes. Some local governments are looking to such housing as a means of creating more housing in neighborhoods without building big condominiums or rows of townhouses. It could turn out to be an understated solution to a dearth of rental homes.

And as more Californians become renters, some activists and consultants argue that the politics around housing might change. California YIMBY Victory Fund, a political action committee, has emerged to back candidates specifically on housing issues. And technology companies in pricey areas like Silicon Valley and San Francisco are jumping into the issue, too.

© Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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